François de Muizon, a married father and professor of theology, describes how Amoris Laetitia – The Joy of Love – integrates the pastoral dimension into a magisterial document and invites us not only to “clarify” but above all to “encourage” the persons to progress.

François de Muizon

Let’s start with a quick look since the Second Vatican Council

The post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia[1] (19 March 2016) is not the first magisterial text on marriage! To understand it properly, it is important to situate it in the wake of previous teachings of the Catholic Church, at least since the Second Vatican Council. Let us dare to take a quick look. If John XXIII emanated a prophetic audacity, that of a good man docile to the Holy Spirit, we can discern in the teaching of Paul VI the courage of a true man who suffered for the Church. In John Paul II, what is striking is above all the deepening of morality in an anthropology of the incarnate and saved person. Above all, the power and splendour of the truth that makes us free appears. The dominant theme is clearly doctrinal. The challenge is to enlighten the conscience on the nature of the person, of his or her vocation to gift, carried by faith in the power of salvation at work. With Benedict XVI, the tone is more theological, insisting on the spiritual resources and grace to live fully the moral requirement. Finally, in Francis, the dominant tone is clearly pastoral. The importance of the concrete process of growth in the Christian life, of the journey of the person, of his or her accompaniment and of the discernment of the concrete good that can be achieved is highlighted. The challenge is above all to encourage the person to progress, in the midst of conditionings, towards the fullness of the Christian life, with the help of grace, according to a traditional morality of virtues and happiness.

The gaze of the Good Shepherd

On reading Amoris Laetitia, what is striking is not the doctrine formulated, which is traditional overall, but the particular tone. Rarely has Catholic doctrine on marriage been expressed in such concrete, existential, evangelical terms, unifying the human and spiritual, psychological and theological dimensions, in simple words, accessible to all. Francis’ style reaches everyone in their experience, with realism and authenticity. The novelty of the style tends to translate the novelty of the view of the conjugal and family experience. This view is neither lax nor rigorous. It is a realistic, demanding and benevolent view, that of the Good Shepherd, attentive to all people and their progress. Basically, it is a question of entering into the very gaze of Jesus on each person, each couple, each family. It is indeed to such a conversion of heart, to such a pastoral conversion that Francis invites us. It is first of all a matter of allowing ourselves to be looked at by Jesus and to enter into the gaze of love and tenderness that he has for the men and women he meets[2]. This look at the person as he or she is is far removed from any abstract idealism. Far from being merely factual or superficial, it is a look of faith, discerning the mysterious action of grace. It is a gaze of benevolent and demanding love, which recognises what is already there, what is in promise, and does not limit itself to noting what is missing. Finally, it is a look of hope and mercy, which welcomes suffering and places it on a path of healing, conversion and growth.

Realism versus idealism?

The realistic view of marriage and the couples who live it is often contrasted in the text with an ethereal idealism, which would be satisfied with abstract principles. Francis is wary of idealism. Yet, paradoxically, he often uses the word “ideal[3]” in a positive sense, to express the fullness of Christian marriage to be proposed to all. This “complete ideal of marriage” is “God’s plan in all its grandeur” (AL 307). John Paul II, in his time, never used the vocabulary of the ideal to approach married[4] life, so much did he insist on the realism of the grace abundantly given by God to spouses, to live and fully incarnate their call to achieve an authentic conjugal communion. Seeing above all the side of real human fragility, Francis denounces those pastors who lock the sheep into a “cold and lifeless doctrine” (AL 59), into an ethics without goodness, rigid and legalistic. He advocates a “healthy realism” and invites us to “keep our feet on the ground” (AL 6), because faith is concrete: “The Word did not become an idea, it became flesh”[5]. The Holy Father also invites us to consider couples as they are, marked by all sorts of limitations, wounds, difficulties, conditioning, inertia, suffering, disillusionment, failure, etc. Adopting a realistic stance also means looking at the way in which the demands of Christ and the Church with regard to love and marriage are perceived and understood by our contemporaries. How are the demands of respect for continence before marriage, of freedom, of fidelity, of indissolubility, of openness to life, of coherent sacramental life, really understood? Finally, it is important to take the measure of the context of the blurring of reference points, the weakening of the conjugal, family and social bond, and the impact of subjectivism (AL 34), relativism (AL 34), individualism (AL 33), the culture of the temporary (AL 39), emotivism (AL 34), hedonism and the eroticization of society (AL 39). Ultimately, it is indeed a real “anthropological and cultural change” (AL 32) that we must take note of, without resigning ourselves to it.

Not only to enlighten consciences, but to encourage fragile wills

In such a context, the accompaniment of couples does not simply consist in enlightening erroneous consciences or deliberate ill will, but in educating wills that are hindered or weakened in their capacity to choose and to accomplish the true good. What is at stake is above all the education to true freedom of a moral subject who has become weak. From this follows this warning: let us not expect from this text a change in moral norms, but rather a new encouragement[6] to discernment in order to live progressively the fullness of the conjugal call (AL 300). It is therefore a question of strengthening the moral subject, who is weakened by the weight of the many social and psychological conditions (AL 303) which constitute so many extenuating circumstances (AL 301). But here, let us be clear: to underline these weaknesses is in no way to lack hope in man, still less in the power of Christ’s saving grace. It is not resignation, nor is it reducing man’s concrete possibilities to a strictly human level, forgetting that he is saved by Christ. It is to show spiritual realism, in order to better dispose hearts to welcome divine grace in their real history. God’s grace works on man starting from reality to transform him progressively at the rhythm of a journey that must be accompanied step by step.

Thus, it is futile to repeat norms without taking into account the state of people in the concrete situations in which they are immersed. Indeed, the problem is not primarily moral, but anthropological, because it concerns the person himself. It is precisely to this need for anthropological renewal that John Paul II’s personalist teaching on the theology of the body responded. If the crisis of morality is first of all a crisis of the consistency of the moral subject, rendering him or her incapable of discerning and realising his or her own good, and thus of fulfilling himself or herself in truth and freedom, the subject will recover his or her consistency by allowing himself or herself to be enlightened by a renewed fundamental understanding of the person, in which the person is progressively fulfilled, by entering into the concrete dynamism of the gift, a dynamism whose source is Trinitarian and whose meaning can be expressed by the sexed body. Even in the midst of conditionings and limitations, it is always possible to progress by entering into this dynamism of gift.

“Time superior to space”: the challenge of growth, of a journey

In this context, the theme of the primacy of time over space, dear to Francis (Evangelium Gaudium 222, Laudato Si’ 78), applies very well to couples. In married life, it is a question of “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (AL 261). In fact, the adventure of Christian marriage is above all that of a risky journey, but for two, of an entire existence, where it is a question of learning to give and receive, of learning to love each other to the end. In this gradual process, the spouses’ journey, welcoming at the heart of their bond the divine Third Person that unites them. To journey[7] is to progress step by step towards a mature love. Love is this dynamic process, fragile and precious, alive, called to develop and which it is important to cultivate (ch IV and VI). Marriage is part of a long history, a “history of salvation” (AL 221), all the stages of which must be accompanied. If the sacrament does not have a magical and automatic efficacy, if it is not an abstract ideal either, it needs to be activated from within a human soil, which must be constantly cultivated so that sacramental grace may bear fruit. It is a path of falling and rising, of defeat and victory, of sin and forgiveness, of woundedness and authentic gift. At stake is the growth of the moral subject, of his or her freedom and conscience along several major paths.

The law of graduality, a divine pedagogy

In this spirit Francis relies first of all on the “law of graduality” introduced by John Paul II, “aware that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes the moral good by following stages of growth’ (FC 34)” (AL 295). The law of graduality, which is rather a law of the spiritual and existential life, constitutes in some way the matrix of Amoris Laetitia, the framework of thought and discernment of the whole text. It is a law of growth, maturation and progressive acceptance of grace, which corresponds to the Ignatian “more”. Francis extends it to the situations of couples who are on the way and are far from living all the requirements of the law. It is a question of “a gradualness in the prudent accomplishment of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a condition to understand, value or fully observe the objective requirements of the law” (AL 295). In every situation, therefore, it is possible to identify the “next step” to be taken, in order to progress along one’s own path. In particular, the mission of pastors with regard to couples “in so-called irregular situations” is to indicate a path of growth and grace that is always possible. “It is the Church’s task to reveal to them the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and to help them to reach the fullness of God’s plan for them, which is always possible with the strength of the Holy Spirit” (AL 297).

The path to personal integration

Secondly, it is a question of understanding the path of growth as a path of progressive integration of affectivity and sexuality into true love. To “integrate” here means to enter into a path of unification of the person, of coherence which passes, especially for remarried divorcees, through a path of truth, of repentance, in the light of a serious examination of conscience. (AL 300). The challenge is to consider the law, not in a juridical way – a norm that obliges on pain of punishment – but in its biblical sense, as a path to happiness, a wise instruction, an offered grace, a sign of God’s delicate love. “The Law is a gift of God, which indicates the way, a gift for all without exception, which can be lived by the power of grace, even if each human being “gradually moves forward through the progressive integration of God’s gifts and the demands of his definitive and absolute love in all personal and social life.” (FC 9)” (AL 295)

An education in the practice of moral virtues

The path of growth in conjugal love also passes through an education in the practice of moral[8] virtues. Francis introduces this with vigour: “we must recall the importance of virtue” (AL 206). He appeals to the ethics of the virtues in the great Aristotelian-Thomistic line, widely rehabilitated today [9]in view of a “moral education” understood as a formation to true freedom. “Moral education is a formation to freedom through proposals, motivations, practical applications, stimuli, rewards, examples, models, symbols, reflections, exhortations, revisions of the way of acting and dialogues that help people to develop those stable inner principles that lead to spontaneously doing good. Virtue is a conviction transformed into a stable inner principle of action.” (AL 267). As such, the family is the “first school of values, where the correct use of freedom is learned” (AL 274)[10]. It is the crucible of growth in personal and moral life. It is there that one learns “to relate to others, to listen, to share, to support, to respect, to help, to live together” (AL 276). An entire chapter is devoted to education, moral virtues and the building of freedom (AL 261-273).

An ethic of growth, journey and self-building

Francis therefore considers the human being as a being inscribed in a history, a being on the way who needs time to build himself up, “day by day” (AL 308), taking small steps, which leads him to favour a morality of virtues. The human being created in the image of God is called to acquire likeness, to resemble him more and more. He is an unfinished being, in the process of achieving his singular fulfilment. He is made up of inclinations, potentialities, passions that are called to be developed, purified, channelled and brought to perfection. Virtue is the process of edification by which man humanises himself by fulfilling his inclinations and potentialities. Exercising virtues makes one increasingly free, more capable of mastering one’s passions, in order to become wise, just, courageous, temperate. “The virtuous life builds freedom, strengthens it and educates it, preventing the person from becoming a slave to dehumanising compulsive tendencies” (AL 267). Knowledge is not enough to progress and be fulfilled. An isolated act is not enough either. It is necessary to practice it through “the conscious, free and valued repetition of certain good behaviours” (AL 266) so that the person acquires “stable interior principles that lead to spontaneous good.” (AL 267). Thus, to truly love one’s spouse requires daily practice, so that this love may grow. “One can have sociable feelings and a good disposition towards others, but if for a long time one has not been accustomed, thanks to the insistence of adults, to say ‘please’, ‘forgive me’, ‘thank you’, the good interior disposition will not easily translate into these expressions. (AL 266). The exercise of the virtues creates a kind of “interior fold” (a habitus) which spontaneously inclines the person to do good more and more easily, firmly and joyfully[11]. Little by little, goodness becomes imprinted on the person and shapes him or her to make him or her better and more beautiful. Virtue also beautifies the person. Within married and family life, the virtues that it is good to foster are those in the hymn to charity (1 Cor 13): patience, courage, helpfulness, gentleness, justice, humility, detachment, forgiveness, gratitude, the ability to rejoice in the good that is in the other, and trust.[12]

Cultivating the attraction and joyful taste for good

The virtues show that moral education does not consist only in denouncing evil and teaching the law, but first of all in fostering the recognition of the “spontaneous inclinations of the human person” (AL 123) towards the good, in cultivating “the affective tendencies towards the good” (AL 264), in facilitating the accomplishment of the good, effectively, step by step, and in allowing one to taste the pure joy of having accomplished it (fruitio). In this way, the law is recognised as a “gift of God that shows the way” (AL 295) and can be welcomed, understood, loved and integrated. Conscience can then play its role as an inner compass, guiding the moral life. It is a matter of “the good grasped by the spirit taking root in us as a profound affective disposition, as a disposition to good” (AL 265). (AL 265). There is, therefore, a profound correspondence between the demands of the Gospel and the interior desires of the heart. Within this primacy of goodness and love in a “positive pastoral care” (AL 38), Francis addresses the fight against evil (AL 77, 92, 104, 119). He insists on the virtue of strength: “the strong one is the one who can break the spiral of hatred, the spiral of evil” (AL 118). (AL 118) Like St. Thomas, Francis thus insists more on the good to be done than on the evil to be avoided. It is by doing the good and experiencing the happiness of having done it, that one recognises more and more the evil to be avoided and receives the strength to renounce it. The accomplishment of good and the experience of the joy of love are for François the most powerful inner springs for advancement, for growth in humanity, for self-fulfilment in the gift of self, and this is possible in all situations.

All along the way, homo viator

For every person, whether in a “regular” or “irregular” situation, it is a question of envisaging a dynamic of growth in freedom and holiness, whose driving force is the loving attraction of the good and the joy of the good accomplished, before the struggle against sin and evil. We understand that we are all on the way to holiness, we all need to be accompanied, strengthened, lifted up by grace and purified by mercy, in order to grow in the joy of love. Our common condition is that of homo viator[13], limited and sinful, but on the way, under the sign of hope. It is essential to have a lively awareness of this before addressing the situation of remarried divorcees. It is also important to use a vocabulary that is not limited to a failure to comply with a law, but that is attentive to reality, hence the expressions “irregular” (297), “complicated” (312), “complex” (247), “imperfect” (296), “human fragility[14]” (56, 237, 296). Francis invites us to take into account the mystery of fragility (47) in the marital and family[15] sphere.

All forgiven and called sinners

In order to be able to enter into the gaze of Jesus, everyone, including pastors, is invited to live this dynamism of growth which passes through conversion and personal unification, and for this to take the measure of one’s own fragility, and to experience being a lost and saved sheep. It is a question of accepting to be reached by Mercy in one’s fragility and sinfulness. “We must pray with our own history, accept ourselves, know how to live with our own limits, including forgiving ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. But this presupposes the experience of being forgiven by God, justified freely.” (AL 107-108) Every Christian is a forgiven and called[16] sinner. This is his true identity, the identity that leads him to a right disposition. “We are all invited to live by mercy because we have first been shown mercy” (AL 310).

Ecclesial integration of all

The word for this just disposition is integration. For Francis, integration means remembering that remarried divorcees are not excommunicated, and that if they are deprived of sacramental communion, they are not deprived of ecclesial communion and sanctifying grace (AL 299). It is a question of ecclesial integration: “We frequently behave as controllers of grace and not as facilitators. But the Church is not a customs house, it is the fatherly house where there is room for everyone with their difficult life”. (EG 47, PARA 310). We are solemnly invited to a true pastoral conversion that leads to the development of a benevolent compassion, ready to welcome and accompany all those who wish to approach with a sincere heart the Church and what she proclaims. “The Church’s path, since the Council of Jerusalem, has always been that of Jesus: that of mercy and integration […]. The Church’s path is that of condemning no one eternally, of pouring out God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart” (AL 296) Integrating therefore presupposes this disposition of the sinner’s heart, unlike the “corrupt” who exclude themselves.

Entering into Christ’s view of sinners

Francis invites us to look with the eyes of Christ at “those who participate in his life in an incomplete way, while recognising that God’s grace is also at work in their lives, giving them the courage to do good, to care for one another with love and to be at the service of the community in which they live and work” (AL 291). Jesus welcomes every person who comes to him and considers them for what they are, without confining them to their sin but without denying that sin. His gaze lifts up. He reveals that in every situation there is a possible path to conversion. Francis evokes in turn the figures of Matthew and Zacchaeus (AL 21), the Samaritan woman (AL 289), the adulterous woman (AL 27, 38, 64), the sinner at Simon’s (AL 21, 100, 289).

“Misericordia and misera[17]

Following St Augustine, Francis comments on the moment when Jesus finds himself alone with the adulterous woman. With infinite mercy, Jesus leads her to a moment of truth about her situation. He opens her heart and frees her to evangelise. At Simon’s house, Jesus lets the sinful woman do this, throwing herself at his feet, wetting them with her tears, wiping them with her hair, covering them with kisses and pouring out perfume (Lk 7:36-49). Simon, who questions the prophetic identity of Jesus (“if this man were a prophet, he would know who and what this woman is”), does not see that Jesus is indeed a prophet and that his prophetic activity is precisely to signify God’s judgement, proceeding from a right look at the deepest reality of this woman, whose heart opens and is converted. Simon confuses the deep and mysterious identity (“who”) with the category in which he wants to enclose it (“what”). His judgment prevents him from discerning the beauty of this woman’s actions, her audacity, her faith, her humility and above all her great love. Jesus then addresses Simon, using his accounting language, so that he experiences a conversion of gaze. However, there is no ambiguity, it is the same Jesus who had firmly condemned adultery (Mt 5, ;27 5, 32), and who now chooses to express himself in a different way to the fragile person in an irregular situation. The Church is inspired by this way of doing things of Jesus. “The Church’s message on marriage and the family is a clear reflection of the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who, while proposing a demanding ideal, never renounced a compassionate closeness to fragile persons, such as the Samaritan woman or the adulterous woman” (AL 38). This attitude of Jesus to which the Church is called is visible both in St. John Paul II, when he recalls the demands of God’s law and the splendour of truth, and in Francis, when he invites pastoral sensitivity towards those who do not yet succeed in observing the law of life.

Pastor in the way of Jesus

Thus, to accompany vulnerable people on their journey is to enter into the gaze of Jesus, which does not prevent the law of life from being clearly taught. If moral teaching makes it possible to structure and form the conscience, by proposing general orientations and fundamental values, pastoral accompaniment, after having taken the time to listen to the person in his or her particular history, gives him or her concrete paths. It is a question of helping the concrete person to form a judgement on what is, at this moment, for him or her, the good to do and the bad to avoid, in a perspective of practical wisdom. If St John Paul II, in his magisterial teaching (Familiaris Consortio, Veritatis Splendor), clearly favoured moral teaching to enlighten consciences, Francis strongly emphasises the pastoral dimension, the point of view of practical wisdom and individual pastoral discernment. Benedict XVI, for his part, had held both points of view, when he affirmed the existence of “non-negotiable ethical principles” [18]or when, in Africa[19], he invited the humanisation of sexuality and chastity as the only means of fighting AIDS, and when, on the other hand, in response to journalists, he insisted on taking account of particular situations within a specific human and spiritual path.[20]

The art of discernment

If the usual practice was to address in the magisterial teaching the point of view of moral teaching to enlighten the judgement, and to reserve the concrete discernment of situations to pastoral accompaniment, most often assured by priests or religious (confession, spiritual accompaniment), the novelty of Amoris Laetitia is to have integrated into a magisterial document the pastoral point of view, giving it a greater scope, and inviting the Church to a pastoral and missionary conversion. This language can disorientate those who are not experienced in the art of discernment, and one can ask some questions about the formation of pastors, starting with priests and bishops, in this art of discernment, so developed in Ignatian spirituality for example. John Paul II had nevertheless opened a door on the side of pastoral discernment, by introducing the notion of graduality (FC 34) and the need to discern well the different situations of conjugal separations (FC 84). Francis takes up this contribution and deploys it abundantly, to the point of making it the guideline of all his teaching[21].

[1] Amoris Laetitia (henceforth AL) is the second post-synodal exhortation on marriage and family, the first being John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, (1981henceforth FC).

[2] Ethics consists in adopting a certain adjusted gaze (the word comes up 51 times), the same gaze that Jesus has on the Samaritan woman (mentioned 4 times), on the adulterous woman (mentioned 3 times), on the sinner in Simon’s house (mentioned 2 times).

[3] 21 occurrences of the word “ideal” in Amoris Laetitia.

[4] Speaking of married life, the future Pope already affirmed that “there is an authentic communio personarum, a unification of persons and not just of bodies, not just a ‘sexual relationship’, but a real unification of persons, in which they become a gift to each other, they give and receive each other. This is not an idealistic vision, but a realistic one. It is especially the Gospel which demands of us such realism in the appreciation of the conjugal bond” (John Paul II, Family and Communion, p. 5). (John Paul II, Family and the Communion of Persons, (1974-1975), Téqui, 2016, pp. 46-47)

[5] Francis, Homily at Saint Martha’s, 24 April 2017.

[6] The notion of courage, in substantive or verbal form, occurs 48 times.

[7] The themes of journey (65 times), maturation (27 times), growth (26 times), and process (14 times) are central in Amoris Laetitia.

[8] The theme of the virtues at the heart of married life was almost absent from previous texts: Humanae vitae (0 times), FC (32, 33, 37, only the virtue of chastity is mentioned), VS (discreet allusions).

[9] MACINTYRE Alasdair, Après la vertu. Étude de théorie morale, Paris, PUF, coll. Léviathan, 1997; PINCKAERS Servais, Plaidoyer pour la vertu, Paris, éditions Parole et Silence, 2007; DREYER Rod, Comment être chrétien dans un monde qui l’est plus. Le pari bénédictin, Artège, 2017.

[10] I would like to mention my intervention at the theological congress of the 6th World Meeting of Families, Mexico City, 14-18 January 2009: “The family as educator in human and Christian values”.

[11] We would say with St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Pilgrim’s Tale: fortiter et suaviter”.

[12] These virtues are developed at length in ch IV, 89-164, “Love in Marriage”.

[13] MARCEL Gabriel, Homo viator, prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l’espérance, Aubier, 1945.

[14] The word fragile or frailty appears 27 times in the exhortation.

[15] Chapter 8 is entitled “Accompanying, discerning and integrating fragility”.

[16] Pope Francis’ motto, miserando atque eligendo, means “Chosen because forgiven”. This motto refers precisely to the conversion of St Matthew.

[17] The title of the Apostolic Letter concluding the 2016 Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy opens with these words: “Misericordia and misera are the two terms used by Saint Augustine to describe the encounter between Jesus and the adulterous woman” (cf. Jn 8:1-11). He could not have found a more beautiful and accurate expression to convey the mystery of God’s love when he comes to meet the sinner: “There remained only the miserable sinner before the merciful goodness” (In Joh, 33, 5).

[18] VII World Family Meeting, Milan, 2012.

[19] Speech in Cameroon, 17 March 2009.

[20] Specifically, while recalling that condoms cannot be “a true and moral solution”, Benedict XVI adds that “however, with the intention of reducing the risk of contamination, the use of a condom can be a first step on the way to a sexuality lived differently, a more human sexuality”. He goes on to give an example: “When a prostitute uses a condom, insofar as this can be a first step towards moralisation, a first element of responsibility allowing for the development of a new awareness of the fact that not everything is permitted and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” Finally, he reminds us that “this is not the right way to respond to the evil that is the HIV infection. The right response necessarily lies in the humanisation of sexuality.” (Benedict XVI, Light of the World, pp. 159-160).

[21] It is in this spirit that the famous chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, “Accompanying, discerning and integrating fragility”, which has caused so much reaction, should be interpreted. Many controversies could be avoided if the gap between these two complementary points of view were fully appreciated: moral teaching that clarifies and pastoral accompaniment that encourages. This article was inspired in particular by François Gonon’s book, Amoris Laetitia, La doctrine du bon pasteur, regard d’un curé de paroisse et théologien, Emmanuel, 2017.